Review Summary: An album that never strives to go anywhere and feels too mixed
The return of Metallica to their thrash roots with Death Magnetic was a widely debated event. Some claimed that the album was fantastic, and the best thing they had done since their glory days. Others said that it was drab and lifeless and should have been aborted before it was even release. Criticisms listed were the stale production and the fact that the songs are far too long and that James Hetfield's vocals have lost all the edge they once had on classic releases such as Master Of Puppets. I do not really believe that either opinion is wholly correct, however, as Death Magnetic has good points and bad points about it.
This album is indeed a return to the band's thrash days but only halfway, and this is a major problem with it. Death Magnetic just feels like the band is meandering around trying to incorporate elements of both their older sound and their more commercial sound, by having choruses that are supposed to be catchy and sing-along friendly amidst a sea of thrashy riffs. The one song that is pure thrash from start to finish, My Apocalypse, is one of three that actually work on this album all the way through. It is fast paced and straight to the point, with a lot of aggression behind it and James' vocals are quite tolerable, and it even has a moderately catchy section with the words "MY A-POC-A-LYPSE" shouted by James. Many of the other songs lack this feeling of being consistently enjoyable, with tracks such as Broken Beat And Scarred in particular sticking out as being just too mixed up.
It also has a distinct lack of originality and the feeling of having been here before. The Day That Never Comes is the worst offender here, coming across as a carbon copies of songs such as One and Welcome Home (Sanitarium). It follows the same path as those two ballads from their earlier works with quite a soft opening that builds up toward an aggressive finish. This song is a great track but it feels unoriginal as any fan of the band has already heard this song twice before, just a little bit shorter on their early works and more to the point. James' vocals are an issue that needs addressing and on this song the problems with them really start to show. For the most part he attempts singing, which is clearly a bad idea as Reload and Load showed off, but it is his shouting that gets irritating. He literally sounds like a constipated bullfrog for the most part.
The instrumental work for Death Magnetic is a mixed bag. Many of the riffs are very fast and angry, such as on the opening track, but at times they dip in quality, such as on The Unforgiven III (most unnecessary sequel song ever, for gods sake, Metallica, just kill this series already). The drumming is at least aggressively played again but is completely dull and boring, and Lars can not do double-bass anymore whatsoever. His drumming is intense on tracks like the aforementioned opening song, That Was Just Your Life, but he just does not vary his drumming enough and it feels too simplistic. The one section of the instrumental performance from the band that really does shine is the soloing, which is a good thing after the solo-less St. Anger album that was released five years before. The Day That Never Comes in particular shows off how good Kirk is at soloing for those who had forgot how good he was on their earliest releases.
The production is arguably worse than that of St. Anger here. On that particular album the main problem came from the rattle effect on the drums and whilst that is missing here thankfully, everything feels too compressed. Take the guitar tones of And Justice For All and the abysmal production job of their debut and that is essentially what this sounds like. The drums are too loud in the mix and the instruments all have rough sounds to them that makes this feel more like a demo tape than an actual full length release. This is something that will irk you throughout your listen to this and will most likely make you want to snap the CD in frustration. Quite why the band can't just go back to the crisp production jobs of Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets is beyond me. Hell, I'd even take a too-glossy production such as on their self-titled over the garbage $10 production job here.
Death Magnetic is something of a shallow return to their glory days, but only glimmers of grandeur really show through. For the most part this is just an uninspired, tepid re-hash of their earliest material minus and of the ingenuity that carried those albums.